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Bangladesh-Myanmar Economic Ties: Addressing the Next Generation Challenges

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Bangladesh-Myanmar relations have developed through phases of cooperation and conflict. Conflict in this case is not meant in the sense of confrontation, but only in the sense of conflict of interests and resultant diplomatic face-offs. Myanmar is the only other neighbor that Bangladesh has on its border besides India. It is the potential gateway for an alternative land route opening towards China and South-East Asia other than the sea. Historically, these two countries have geographic and cultural linkages. These two bordering countries, located in separate geopolitical regions, have huge possibilities in developing their bilateral economic relations. At the initial phase of their statehood, both countries undertook numerous constructive initiatives to improve their relations. Nevertheless, different bilateral disputes and challenges troubled entire range of cooperation. Subsequent to these challenges, Bangladesh and Myanmar have started negotiation process on key dubious issues. The economic rationales over political tensions in Bangladesh-Myanmar relations prevail with new prospects and opportunities.

Bangladesh-Myanmar relations officially began from 13 January 1972, the date on which Myanmar, as the sixth state, recognized Bangladesh as a sovereign nation. They signed several agreements on trade and business such as general trade agreement in 1973. The two countries later initiated formal trade relations on 05 September 1995. To increase demand for Bangladeshi products in Myanmar, Bangladesh opened trade exhibitions from 1995 to 1996 in Yangon, former capital of Myanmar. However, that pleasant bilateral economic relations did not last for long, rather was soon interrupted mainly by Myanmar’s long term authoritarian rule and isolationist economic policy. In the twenty-first century, Bangladesh-Myanmar relations are expected to move towards greater economic cooperation facilitated by two significant factors. First, the victory of Myanmar’s pro-democratic leader, Aung San Suu Kyi, in 2011 has considerably brought new dimensions in the relations. Although this relation is now at stake since the state power has been taken over by military. Second, the peaceful settlement of Bangladesh-Myanmar maritime dispute in 2012 added new dimension in their economic relations.

Bangladesh and Myanmar don’t share a substantial volume of trade and neither is in the list of largest trading partners. Bangladesh’s total export and import with Myanmar is trifling compared to the total export and import and so do Myanmar’s. But gradually the trades between the countries are increasing and the trend is for the last 5 to 6 year is upward especially for Bangladesh; although Bangladesh is facing a negative trend in Balance of Payment. In 2018-2019 fiscal year, Bangladesh’s total export to Myanmar was $25.11 million which is more than double from that of the export in 2011-12. Bangladesh imported $90.91 million worth goods and services from Myanmar resulting in $65 Million deficit in Balance of Payment in 2018-2019 fiscal year. For the last six or seven years, Bangladesh’s Balance of Payment was continuously in deficit in case of trade with Myanmar. The outbreak of COVID-19, closure of border for eight months and recent coup in Myanmar have a negative impact on the trade between the countries. 

Bangladesh mainly imports livestock, vegetable products including onion, prepared foodstuffs, beverages, tobacco, plastics, raw hides and skin, leather, wood and articles of woods, footwear, textiles and artificial human hair from Myanmar. Recently, due to India’s ban on cattle export, Myanmar has emerged as a new exporter of live animals to Bangladesh especially during the Eid ul-Adha with a cheaper rate than India. On the hand, Bangladesh exports frozen foods, chemicals, leather, agro-products, jute products, knitwear, fish, timber and woven garments to Myanmar.

Unresolved Rohingya crisis, Myanmar’s highly unpredictable political landscape, lack of bilateral connectivity, shadow economy created from illegal activities, distrust created due to different insurgent groups, maritime boundary dispute, illegal drugs and arms smuggling in border areas, skeptic mindset of the people in both fronts and alleged cross border movement of insurgents are acting as stumbling block in bolstering economic relations between Bangladesh and Myanmar.

Bangladesh-Myanmar relations are yet to blossom in full swing. The agreement signed by Sheikh Hasina in 2011 to establish a Joint Commission for Bilateral Cooperation is definitely a proactive step for enhancing trade. People to people contact can be increased for building mutual confidence and trust. Frequent visit by business, civil society, military and civil administration delegates may be organized for better understanding and communication. Both countries may explore economic potential and address common interest for enhancing economic co-operation. In order to augment trade, both countries may ease visa restrictions, deregulate currency restrictions and establish smooth channel of financial transactions. Coastal shipping (especially cargo vessels between Chittagong and Sittwe), air and road connectivity may be developed to inflate trade and tourism. Bangladesh and Myanmar may establish “Point of Contact” to facilitate first-hand information exchange for greater openness. Initiative may be taken to sign Preferential Trade Agreement (PTA) within the ambit of which potential export items from both countries would be allowed to enter duty free. In recent year, Bangladesh was badly affected by many unilateral decisions of India such as onion crisis. Myanmar can serve as an alternative import source of crops and animals for Bangladesh to lessen dependence upon India.

Myanmar’s currency is highly devaluated for a long time due to its political turmoil and sanctions by the west. Myanmar can strengthen its currency value by escalating trade volume with Bangladesh. These two countries can fortify their local economy in boarder areas by establishing border haats. Cooperation between these two countries on “Blue Economy” may be source of strategic advantages mainly by exporting marine goods and service. Last but not the least, the peaceful settlement of maritime boundary disputes between Bangladesh and Myanmar in 2012 may be capitalized to add new dimension in their bilateral economic relations. Both nations can expand trade and investment by utilizing the Memorandum of Understanding on the establishment of a Joint Business Council (JBC) between the Republic of the Union of Myanmar Federation of Chambers of Commerce and Industry (UMFCCI) and the Federation of Bangladesh Chambers of Commerce and Industry (FBCCI).

With the start of a new phase in Bangladesh-Myanmar relations, which has put the bilateral relations on an upswing, it is only natural that both sides should try to give a boost to bilateral trade. Bilateral trade is not challenge free but the issue is far easier to resolve than others. At the same time, closer economic ties could also help in resolving other bilateral disputes. For Myanmar, as it is facing currency devaluation and losing market, increased trade volume will make their economy vibrant. For Bangladesh, it is a good opportunity to use the momentum to minimize trade deficits and reduce dependency on any specific country.

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The Economic Conundrum of Pakistan

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The State Bank of Pakistan (SBP) is due to convene on 20th September 2021. The Monetary policy Committee (MPC) will be announcing its policy rate after retaining it since March 2020. As the world deals with the uncertainty of the delta variant along with the dilemma between inflation and growth, it is a plenary to watch as Pakistani policymakers would join heads to decide the stance on the economic situation. However, the decision would be a tough one. Primarily because the mixed signals could either lead to burgeoning inflation and subsequent financial deterioration or they should guide the central bank to strangulate the growth prematurely. Either way, the policymakers would have to be cautious about the degree of inclination they lean to each side of the argument – economic contraction or growth with inflation.

A poll conducted by Topline Research shows that about 65% of the financial market participants expect status quo; the MPC to maintain the policy rate at 7% to further accommodate economic growth. Pakistan has barely mustered a 4% growth rate after the contraction of 0.4% last year. In this regard, Mr. Mustafa Mustansir, head of Research at Taurus Securities, stated: Visible signs of demand-side pressure are still quite weak. In another survey conducted by Policy Research Unit (PRU): a policy advisory board of the Federation of Pakistan Chamber of Commerce and Industry (FPCCI), 84% of the market participants believe there will be no change in the policy rate. The sentiment implies that the researchers and the business community don’t expect a rate hike in this week’s policy meeting.

However, the macroeconomic indicators paint a bleak picture for Pakistan’s economy: warranting a tougher policy response. The external trade figures released by the Pakistan Bureau of Statistics (PBS) project a debilitating situation for the national exchequer. According to the data, Pakistan’s trade deficit has increased to $7.5 billion in the first two months (July-August) of the fiscal year 2021-22. The deficit stands at $4.1 billion: 120% higher than the same period last year. Due to the accommodative policies implemented by the government of Pakistan, the trade deficit has already climbed 26% up to the annual target of $28.4 billion, set in the fiscal budget 2021-22. Despite excessive subsidies, the bi-monthly exports have only grown by 28% to stand at $4.6 billion. And while it is an increase of nearly a billion dollars compared to the same months in the preceding year, the imports have more than perforated the balance of payments.

During the July-August period, the imports have grown by a whopping 73% to stand at $12.1 billion: 22% of the annualized target. What’s more worrisome is the fact that despite a free-float currency mechanism, the exports have failed to turn competitive in the global market. According to the data released by PBS, Pakistan’s exports have dropped from their previous levels for three consecutive months. And despite a 39% net currency depreciation in the past three years, the exports continue to drift sluggish around the $2 billion/month mark. Yet, the imports are accelerating beyond expectation: clocking a 95% increase last month alone. Clearly, something is not working.

Moreover, while the forex reserves with the State Bank stand at a record high of around $20 billion, the rapid depreciation in the rupee is gradually damaging the financial viability of Pakistan. According to Mettis Global, a web-based financial data and analytics portal, the rupee recently slipped to its all-time low of 168.95 against the greenback. While the currency reserves are at their peak, the rupee continues its losing streak as the State bank has refrained from intervening in the forex market to artificially buoy the currency. Primarily because the IMF program stands contingent on letting the rupee float and find equilibrium. As a result, the rupee is touted to breach the 170 rupees against the US dollar mark by next month. The bankers around Pakistan have urged the State Bank for an intervention to put an end to “abnormal volatility in spite of increased reserves.” However, an intervention seems highly unlikely as the SBP Governor, Dr. Reza Baqir, already warned regarding currency devaluation in the last policy meeting: citing supply constraints, debt repayments, and increased imports as primary reasons for the temporal slump.

Nonetheless, almost 10% of the market participants, according to the survey, expect a rate hike of 50 basis points in the policy rate to hedge against inflation. Furthermore, analysts at Topline Securities expect a hike of 25 basis points to counter “vulnerabilities in the current account and control inflationary pressures.” Regardless of the prudent beliefs in the market, however, a few players actually believe that a rate cut of 50-100 basis points is plausible in the meeting. They argue that while the Consumer Price Index (CPI) – a national inflation measure – refuses to let down, the core inflation of Pakistan has dropped perpetually down to 6.3% in August. A stratum of the business community, therefore, also believes that the policy rate should be gradually brought down to 5% to match the regional dynamics.

I somehow find this notion ironic, as the government has already doled billions of dollars in subsidies, provided lucrative loans, and slashed taxes periodically. Yet, the exports have stayed relatively redundant. While it may not be the most effective time to hike the policy rate and tighten the monetary policy, in my opinion, a cut in the policy rate would be detrimental – catastrophic for the current account and incendiary for prevailing inflation.

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Global Revolution in the Crypto World: Road to Legalization

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The raging popularity of virtual currencies is hardly unheard of in today’s day and age. If not by the damning crackdown in China, price swings in cryptocurrencies – especially bitcoin – are definitely deemed perpetual and inherent: unlikely to go away. And while the volatility does bring along a unique thrill to retail investors, the experienced pundits of the financial world are expectedly skeptical. Regardless of the apparent discomfort and resistance to tap into the pool of virtual currencies, policymakers across the world are aware that the future is digital. Therefore, while digital fiat seems to be the direction of most developed economies to counter the decentralized giants, the economic gurus are preparing to harness the mania on another front as well – before the craze overtakes the globe.

The first – and most popular – cryptocurrency is undoubtedly bitcoin. In the aftermath of China’s crackdown on mining activities, bitcoin lost more than half of its valuation. However, acceptance around the world in the past few weeks has helped the currency to buoy past the slump. Bitcoin currently stands at a market cap of $863.8 billion: flirting with the $46,000 mark. Naturally, the rest of the crypto world flows in tandem as fanatics have placed bets for the currency to breach the $50,000 psychological mark again in the following months. However, the rally is largely attributed to the blooming acceptance by governments around the world; something the officials were wary of to avoid risks and uncertainty. However, I still don’t understand the change of perception given the market is more volatile than ever.

Last week’s headlines were all about El Salvador and its adoption of bitcoin as a legal tender. The fiasco that followed was hardly a surprise. Though the incident bolstered the crypto critics, the event projected nothing that was a mystery before the launch. A glitch in the virtual wallet, called “Chivo Wallet,” was one of the countless impediments that had already been warranted as risky by economists around the globe. While the problem was resolved in a matter of hours, the price of bitcoin nosedived by 19% from the 4-month high of $53,000. President Nayib Bukele boasted about “buying at a dip” yet overlooked a crucial aspect from a broader perspective. He failed to realize that a minor glitch in his small nation was significant enough to send the currency spiraling; that in mere hours, billions of dollars were wiped from the global market. All because the app couldn’t appear on the designated platforms for a few hours.

What happened in El Salvador is a vital example to analyze. The resulting confusion is exactly why a passage of regulation is being placed. If the domestic and international markets are to rely upon cryptocurrencies in the near future, then the need for a detailed framework becomes even more amplified.

Recently, Ukraine became the fifth country in weeks to legalize bitcoin. However, while the Ukrainian parliament adopted a bill to legalize the cryptocurrency, regulations are put into place to handle its precarious and volatile nature. Unlike the loose move by El Salvador, Ukraine did not facilitate a rollout of bitcoin as a form of payment. Moreover, the parliament has refrained from placing bitcoin on an equal footing with Hryvnia – Ukraine’s national currency. Primarily because adding another currency prone to unprecedented and wild swings in value could prove complex in policymaking matters including drafting fiscal budgets and taxation planning. And while Kyiv is pushing to lean further into bitcoin to gain more access to global investment, the authorities are prudent. Therefore, unlike the brazen entry by El Salvador, the Ukrainian authorities are underscoring a strategy to learn about the crypto world before bitcoin is etched into Ukrainian law forever.

Meanwhile, the United States is proving rather stringent against the rise of bitcoin – and the crypto world – as nightmares of another financial crisis are caging a progressive adoption. The lawmakers are already vigilant to put braces on the market before it blooms beyond control. The Infrastructure Bill recently passed by the senate provides a hint of direction being adopted by the US legislators. The tax provision, estimated to collect $28 billion over a decade, has been placed as a regulation of the crypto market that stands at a valuation of $2 trillion. The Treasury directives are driven to mobilize the Internal Revenue Service (IRS) to tax crypto brokers while monitoring mandated reporting requirements. The goal is obvious: gradually tighten the screws before regulating the uncharted territory as any other capital market. However, the bill is purposefully vague regarding market actors deemed as brokers under the new law. Naturally, the frenzy follows as miners are left scrambling to define the meaning of a broker in an extremely complex and unorthodox market mechanism. It is clear that prominent lawmakers, like Senator Elizabeth Warren, are the main driving forces to put a leash on the emerging market.

Furthermore, the US Security and Exchange Commission (SEC) has been vocal about Treasury’s long-awaited intervention in the crypto market. Allegedly the virtual currencies have come across as a key tool for tax evasion in the United States. Therefore, much of the lobbying to amend the tax provision in the infrastructure bill is to limit the strictness of application rather than simplifying the vague terminologies. Moreover, the Treasury Department has also been active in discussing the financial stability of Stablecoin – crypto assets pegged to the US dollar and other fiat currencies. While extreme volatility is not a risk in this scenario, the Federal agencies – particularly the Financial Stability Oversight Council (FSOC) – have been keen to set tougher regulations over the market with more than $120 billion in circulation. The move has been swift since the tax provision made its way into the Senate debate. The main intent to regulate stablecoin – particularly Tether – is to harness the market, primarily because the sector acts as an unregulated money market mutual fund holding massive amounts of corporate debt. A plunge in price is enough of a spark to send ripples through the fixed income markets: posing a financial threat to the entire market. Thus, the FSOC is touted to be mobilized soon to probe and regulate the market as it continues to grow.

The crypto world has been cited by global lenders such as IMF as a haven for money laundering and tax frauds. Such tags could lead to negative credit ratings and ineligibility to gain investment and aid packages, especially when debt-ridden countries like El Salvador dabble along without any fixed legal framework. However, with broader regulation, like the steps taken by the US and Ukraine, the risk could be minimized. Another area is to initiate with experienced investors before gradually easing market restrictions for retail investors. A prime example is Germany which recently allowed institutional investors to invest as much as 20% of their holdings in bitcoin and other crypto-assets. While the portion still congregates to billions of dollars, such deft institutional investors are trained enough to manage and monitor trillions of dollars in a vast array of capital markets. Moreover, such large-scale institutional investment firms already have strict regulatory requirements and thus, by default, are bound to consciously maintain conservative holdings.

In my opinion, the crypto market is the financial future of the technological utopia we aspire to build. The smart choice, therefore, is to learn the system down to its spine. Correct the loopholes and irregularities while monitoring experienced professionals participating in an open market. Sketch and amend the legalities and a financial framework along the way. And gradually let the market settle as second nature.

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CPEC: Challenges & Future Prospects

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Global economy paradigm is shifting from the West to the East while China is torch bearer in this context with it’s master stroke OBOR project. The beauty of this unique project is that it provides a new trade corridor and a new route to at least 60 countries. If we make an educated guess, then about 80% of the world population would get benefit from this project. This project can be divided into “Silk Road economic belt” and Maritime silk road”. For disbursement of funds, five financial institutions are opened so that the complete burden should not fall on China. Now it has been a proven fact that the US, few Western countries and India are lobbying and conspiring against the OBOR project.  

The most important project of this initiative is CPEC as it gives China access to the most important geo-strategic location of Gwadar that had always been dream of Russia and NATO for their strategic, military and economic interests in the region. The only project which gives landlocked countries access to the sea. CPEC certainly can be game changer due to its potential of creating mass industrial productivity, exports, and job creation not only for Pakistan but for entire South Asian region.  

Due to various factors, there are always chances that mistrust may prevail among Pakistan and China, which can have a direct impact on Pakistan’s economy. The economy plays a fundamental role in the development and strengthening of any country, but unfortunately, Pakistan was unable to stabilize this sector for decades. As soon as the situation becomes better, another incident of unrest happens. Attacks like the Dasu hydropower plant in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa or like Serena Hotel Quetta are preplanned efforts of our enemies like India to destabilize the project. Although, it has been accepted by Chinese think tanks on various occasions that the security situation has improved in Pakistan during the recent few years. 

Luckily, due to the US withdrawal from Afghanistan, Indian investment is also dying. There is no doubt that the economic stability that Pakistan will achieve after the completion of CPEC cannot be digested by an eternal enemy like India. India is intensifying its covert operations against CPEC, as its discomfort is growing day by day with the cozying Pak-China relations. Modi’s government believes that once operational, CPEC will reduce its sphere of influence in Central Asia, IIOJ&K, and Afghanistan.  The terrorist network formulated in Afghanistan to create unrest in Pakistan under the garb of diplomatic activities has also been jeopardized. As CPEC passes through Gilgit-Baltistan which India claims as a disputed territory but their claim was rejected out rightly by Pakistan and China. Now India may try to reinstate its sleeper cells inside Pakistan to disrupt CPEC.

CPEC in particular offers a win-win situation for participating nations and it has a strong component of social development, poverty alleviation, and demographic uplift, unlike similar programs offered by other international donors. CPEC would not impact its balance of payments of Pakistan at any stage. The payment schedule is very relaxed. It’s about geo-economics and the establishment of a non-exploitable economic system. Another point is that CPEC is a transparent project with all its details present on its websites. The projects of CPEC are not only confined to specific areas but its network is present in the whole of Pakistan. 

Although, it’s correct that Pakistan has a risky security environment, but Pakistan has taken various positive steps in this regard like raising two “Security Divisions” in Pakistan Army, incorporating special paramilitary forces, increasing intelligence apparatus, and improving local police networks.  

There are eight main core areas linked with CPEC which are ‘integrated transportation system’, ‘information network infrastructure’, cooperation in ‘energy related’ fields, ‘trade and industrial parks’, ‘agricultural development and poverty alleviation, ‘tourism’, ‘social development and non-government exchanges’ and lastly ‘financial cooperation’. CPEC is now attracting other countries around the world who are also expressing their desire to join it. 

In present circumstances, the CPEC projects must be completed as soon as possible so that Pakistan’s geographical location can be truly exploited. Our narrative building part is weaker in International media as India and other lobbies are floating a huge bulk of anti-CPEC stories with fake facts and figures, we have to give proper rebuttal and our side of the story must be backed with verified facts and figures. Another point to be focused on is that a prosperous Balochistan would strengthen CPEC’s foundation. This is a real game-changer and we have to engage maximum countries of the world in this project to get moral, social, and financial support. 

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